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Even 1,300 Miles from Home, A Young Cook Remembers Havana

Even 1,300 Miles from Home, A Young Cook Remembers Havana

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Shard by Malena Svarch
Recipe Roots: Havana, Cuba > New York City

Malena Svarch’s warm Cuban accent, pots of simmering ropa vieja, and plates of fried plantains hint at her roots in Havana, but they don’t reveal the long journey her family took to become part of the small Jewish community there. Malena’s paternal grandparents Eva & Natalio zigzagged across the Atlantic in the first half of the 20th Century. Born in Eastern Europe they moved to Argentina, only to return to work as doctors in the Czech Republic. There, Malena explains, they met Cuban doctors at a party who said “Why don’t you go to Cuba for a year? We need your expertise.” They were young idealists and so once again, they crossed the Atlantic, arriving in Cuba in 1962 — and stayed.

 Malena’s grandmother, Eva, and her Dad in Buenos Aires, 1960.

Malena’s grandmother, Eva, and her Dad in Buenos Aires, 1960.

The family, joined by Malena’s great-grandmother Clara, became part of the local Jewish community of Havana. In the 1950s, it numbered nearly 20,000, but today, it counts just 1,400 members. While Jewish traditions and customs didn’t play a large role in Malena’s childhood, the community did. She grew up in what’s called Cuba’s “special period,” but “it’s not special at all,” Malena clarifies. It’s the term used to describe the era when the socialist block stopped supporting Cuba around the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Our generation grew up with little memories about food because food was a very scarce material good,” she says, given out through a rationing system.

“We were a little better off because of the support of the Jewish community,” she adds. While most Cubans struggled to get any meat at all, kosher butchers managed to keep some cuts of beef in stock. Even after a divorce, Malena’s mother, who isn’t Jewish, was still considered part of the community and would get meat from the kosher butcher to make the classic Cuban recipe ropa vieja. The dish, whose name translates to old clothes, consists of beef cooked until it falls apart with fresh pepper, cumin, smoked paprika, and tomato puree. The long cooking time, Malena explains, helps camouflage the tough cuts of meat that her mother brought home.  

Today, living in New York, Malena makes ropa vieja, pairing it with rice and tostones, or smashed and fried plantains. For a sweet taste of Cuba, she makes her own riff on a dessert Clara used to make. When Clara arrived in Havana from Eastern Europe, she longed to make apple strudel. Unable to find apples, and entranced by the tropical fruits of the Caribbean, she replaced them with guava. While living in Miami after graduate school, Malena remembered the stories of Clara from her father, (“everyone says that’s where I got my love of food,” she adds) and started to make her own version of the recipe.

The dessert brings together two baking traditions: Eastern European strudel and Cuban pastelitos — and carries the hallmarks of Malena’s family’s journey.

Check out Malena and her husband Asori Soto’s documentary about their home country “Cuban Food Stories.”

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Ropa Vieja

Serves: 8
Time: 3 hours or 1 hour 15 minutes with pressure cooker

Ingredients
For the meat:
2 pounds flank steak
2 bay leaves
½ yellow onion, peeled and cut in half
4 cups chicken stock

For the sofrito:
¼ cup of olive oil
1 medium red bell pepper, cut into ¼ inch slices
1 medium green bell pepper, cut into ¼ inch slices
1 ½ yellow onions, sliced
3 garlic cloves, sliced
28 oz. can of tomato puree
1 ½ cups white wine
1 teaspoon of cumin
½ teaspoon of smoked paprika
1 teaspoon kosher salt
⅛  teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf

Preparation
1. Place the meat, bay leaves, garlic, onion and chicken stock in a pressure cooker set over high heat. Cook until the meat is tender and easily shreddable, about 35-40 minutes. If you do not have a pressure cooker, place ingredients in an oven-safe pot with a lid and braise at 325°, until meat is tender and shreddable, 2-2 ½ hours. Once meat is braised, shred with a fork.

2. Heat the olive oil in a medium pot over high heat. Add the red and green bell pepper and sauté for 5 minutes to soften. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for 3-5 more minutes. Add the tomato puree, wine, cumin, smoked paprika, salt and pepper. Cover and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes until the sauce thickens.

3. Add the meat and stir to combine with the sauce. Add the bay leaf. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning.

4. Serve immediately with rice (see below), freshly sliced avocado, and tostones.

For the rice:
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups of jasmine rice
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed but left whole

Heat the oil and crushed garlic clove over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Add rice and mix to coat with oil. Add 4 cups of water and ½ teaspoon of salt. Cover and simmer over medium heat for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and let sit for 5 more minutes. Fluff and serve.

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Tostones

Makes: 2 dozen
Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients
4 green plantains
2-3 cups of canola oil
salt
2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)

Preparation
1. Peel the plantains: make cuts down the length of 3 of the dark seams and peel. Trim off any imperfections/discoloration. Cut into 1 inch pieces.

2. Heat 1 ½ inches of canola oil over high heat in a high walled pot.

3. Drop plantains in the oil being careful not to overcrowd. Fry for 4-5 minutes until golden. Using a slotted spoon, carefully remove the plantains from the hot oil and place on a paper towel to cool.

4. Using the bottom of a coffee mug, mash each piece of plantain into 1” thick discs.

5. Place the mashed plantains back in the oil and re-fry for 1-2 minutes until they are a deep golden brown.

6. Remove from the oil, and immediately sprinkle with salt and toss with garlic (if using). Serve immediately.

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Guava Pastelitos

Makes: 18 pastelitos
Time: 30 minutes + 25 minutes baking time

Ingredients
2 sheets of Puff Pastry, cut into 9 squares (2x2 inches each)
1 16 oz. block of guava paste
1 8 oz. block of regular cream cheese, optional
1 large egg
sugar for sprinkling

Preparation
1. Preheat oven to 400° and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. Cut a ¼” rectangle of guava paste (about 2 teaspoons) and place in the center of one of the squares of puff pastry. Fold one corner of the square over the guava paste to meet the other corner, forming a triangle. Seal the edges by pressing along the entire edge of the triangle with a fork. For the cream cheese option, place ¼” rectangle of guava paste and a ¼” rectangle of cream cheese in the center of the puff pastry square and shape into a triangle, sealing the edges with the tines of your fork. Repeat with the remaining squares, choosing whatever filling you’d like until all the squares are full. Lay the pastries out on the prepared baking sheet.

3. In a small bowl or jar, combine the egg and a teaspoon of water. Brush the pastelitos with the egg wash and sprinkle lightly with sugar.

4. Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown and crispy.

5. Let cool, and then serve immediately or reheat in the microwave and enjoy with morning with coffee!

 Photos by Nitzan Rubin

Photos by Nitzan Rubin

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